‘Canaries in the Coal Mine’: We’re losing birds to our changing planet


This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The world’s birds, described as the planet’s ‘coal mine canaries’, are disappearing in large numbers as humanity’s colossal impact on Earth increases, according to a global study.

There are about 11,000 species of birds in the world, but the populations of half of them are decreasing, while only 6% are increasing. Their flight and song make them easier to study than many animals, meaning they are the best-studied large group.

Bird populations are also affected by all the damage caused by human activity, from the destruction of wild habitat, the climate crisis, pesticides and other pollution, to overhunting and the impacts of alien species. and diseases. This makes them the best living indicators of global change, the scientists said.

Billions of birds have been lost in recent decades in North America and Europe alone, and although there are more species in the tropics, a higher proportion are threatened with extinction in the temperate and vastly wealthier countries, according to the study.

Conservation efforts have succeeded in saving individual species in specific places on the brink, but political will and funding are needed to reverse the global decline, the researchers said.

“Birds are a much more powerful taxon [than others] to tell us a story about the health of the planet,” said Alexander Lees, of Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, and who led the review. “We know so much about them – we don’t even know how many insect species there are.”

“Right now we’re triaging endangered species, but we’re not stopping the flow of species toward extinction,” he said. “There’s not much we can do with site-based curation.” While conservation work has improved the populations of 70 species enough to reduce their risk of extinction since 1988, 391 species have deteriorated, according to the study.

Global data collated by Birdlife International backed up the review and the conservation group’s CEO, Patricia Zurita, said: ‘Birds really are the canary in the coal mine as indicators of the health of our planet, given their sensitivity to ecosystem changes, their ubiquity around the planet, and how well-studied they are. [We] need to listen and act on what the birds tell us, because they are disappearing faster and faster.

An exception to the broader decline is for waterfowl, where populations living in wetlands in North America and Europe have increased by 13% since 1970. Restoring relatively small wetlands can have a huge impact, while that birds living in grasslands and forests need much larger areas.

Billions of birds are disappearing due to humanity’s impact on Earth, according to a global study. #ClimateCrisis #GlobalHeating

The review, published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, found that 48% of bird species are known or suspected to be in population decline, compared to 39% with stable trends, 6% showing increases and 7% with unknown trends.

Most long-term data comes from Europe, North America, India and some sites in Africa, but more recent monitoring in Latin America and Asia shows similar results. The bird population in the United States and Canada has declined by three billion since 1970, while 600 million have disappeared from Europe since 1980.

The review notes the extraordinary range of birds, from Antarctic petrels nesting 200 kilometers inland from Antarctica to Hornby’s storm-petrel nesting in the Atacama Desert. A Rüppell’s vulture has been reported flying at an altitude of 11,300 meters, while emperor penguins can dive more than 500 meters below the sea surface. The birds have enormous cultural value, but are also vital to ecosystems , especially to disperse seeds and eat pests.

Birds are affected by all impacts of human activity. For example, an estimated 2.7 million people die each year in Canada alone from ingesting pesticides, while domestic cats can kill 2.4 billion a year in the United States. The bird families most at risk are those that are larger and slower to breed, including parrots, albatrosses, cranes and stocky birds like the Australian turkey. All countries are home to at least one globally threatened bird species and 10 nations have more than 75, according to the study.

Farmland species are declining precipitously, according to the study, down 57% in Europe since 1980. This is due to intensive farming that provides cheap food, Lees said, adding: “If we want farmers raise wildlife, we have to pay for that as a society.

Individual species have been rescued, such as the Mauritian Kestrel, which was a single breeding female but has now been reduced to a population of hundreds, and the Alagoas Hocco in Brazil, which was extinct at the wild but has been restored from birds held by private collectors.

But the review concluded: “The growing human population footprint represents the ultimate driver of most threats to avian biodiversity. A lack of progress in conservation [birds] generally reflects a lack of resources or political will, rather than a lack of knowledge about what needs to be done.

Professor Stuart Pimm of Duke University said the review was excellent and authoritative, even with low data availability in some regions. “What is certain is that about two-thirds of all bird species live in rainforests, and human actions are reducing those habitats,” Pimm said. “Even without detailed population estimates, their numbers are surely declining.”

Lees said people shouldn’t feel powerless to help reverse the decline, but added: ‘We all have connections [to birds]. If a company is associated with deforestation in Brazil, don’t buy anything from them. And if everyone saves as much land as possible in their gardens for nature, that’s a pretty big area. Another lever is voting – we get the politicians we vote for.


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